14 Essential Team Management Skills for First-Time Managers
So you’ve been promoted to management. That’s… kind of a big deal.
You’ve been doing great work. Leadership has recognized in you all the makings of an inspirational boss. In short, it’s definitely time to celebrate. (We’ll wait.)
It’s also time to pick up some new skills.
That’s right—while your existing skills earned you a promotion, you’re going to need a whole new set of team management skills if you really want to excel in your new role and inspire your direct reports to do their best work.
The reason is pretty simple. You’ve proven you’re a top performer. But now it’s time to be a manager, mentor, and above all, a leader. The strategies and skills that got you this far aren’t the same that will lead to success in this new role. In fact, managing a team well requires a whole new set of skills.
Here’s a checklist of team management skills for every first-time manager who wants to make a difference.
Why you need it: As employees work through their to-do lists, heads down on the day-to-day, they may lose track of the how their work impacts the bigger picture. It’s a manager’s responsibility to reframe the focus on longer-term objectives. They should encourage employees to do more of what they do best while also guiding them to improve on areas where they might be falling behind.
How to work on it: To deliver constructive feedback that leads to positive change, make your comments specific and actionable.
Here are a few additional rules to keep in mind as you deliver feedback:
- Focus on the action, not the actor. A recent episode of the Hidden Brain podcast explores how verbal feedback – even positive feedback – can trigger emotions that interfere with task performance. Try to remove the distracting, emotional aspects of your feedback by simply discussing what happened instead of focusing on how the employee did something wrong.
- Offer recommendations and guidance. If you’re in a position to recognize areas of employee improvement, then you’re probably also in a position to provide the information necessary to achieve positive change. A recommendation softens negative feelings as employees realize they have a partner in their journey of change.
- Make it a two-way conversation. Ask employees how the news makes them feel. Are they surprised or upset? Ideally, everyone involved in the feedback will leave the room feeling happy and optimistic.
2. Delegating effectively.
Why you need it: Even the best managers can’t do everything themselves. Delegation is a multiplier. It enables you to expand your capabilities through your team. Plus delegating doesn’t just make your life easier, it also lets employees know they have your trust.
How to work on it: There’s a fine line between delegating and “bossing people around.” Make sure you avoid that latter by providing context and stakes for each task, setting clear expectations, and picking the right employees for the right tasks.
3. Bringing out the best in others.
Why you need it: As a manager, you’re no longer responsible for only your own work; you’re also responsible for helping a whole team of direct reports do their best work.
How to work on it:
- While it’s easy to assume being the boss means having all the answers and calling all the shots, many strong managers sit back and hear employees’ ideas and solutions before jumping in. Listening conveys trust and gives employees a great deal of ownership over their work.
- Invest in employee development by sitting down with everyone to create Individual Development Plans (IDPs). These are customized, thought-intensive strategies for meeting new goals and developing new skills. IDPs marry company objectives with individual goals to make sure everyone benefits. Managers should invest in the plans, checking in often to provide guidance and support when necessary.
- Recognize strengths. The happiest employees have plenty of opportunities to do what they’re best at. Good managers pay attention, discover employee strengths, and also ask employees for their opinions. According to this Fast Company article, managers should ask questions like:
- “What do you enjoy doing most as part of your work?”
- “What do you miss most about the jobs you’ve had in the past and why?”
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. The most motivating managers don’t freak out when things go wrong, and they trust employees to manage their day-to-day tasks without the prodding of a micro-manager.
4. Communicating with a variety of personality types.
Why you need it: As part of a team, you might be able to avoid that one person that rubs you the wrong way. As the manager of a team, you must be able to lead and inspire everyone. This presents a particular challenge when employees have personality types their managers don’t typically find compatible.
How to work on it: Hone your emotional intelligence, especially your empathy skills. Cultivating empathy will allow you to hear your direct reports and also put yourself in their shoes. This helps you come up with the right things to say in any situation. If you want to practice more empathy, experts recommend:
- Focusing on commonalities instead of dwelling on differences. Actively seeking similarities helps dissolve baseless preconceptions that can interfere with fruitful communication.
- Asking questions. Understanding your direct reports will help you empathize and communicate with them.
- Practicing “radical listening” by giving employees your full attention, which involves hearing what they’re saying and also evaluating how they’re feeling.
5. Perceiving and understanding employee work styles.
Why you need it: Recognizing and taking advantage of how people like to work will make your team productive—far more productive than it would be if you blindly enforced a standard set of work processes.
How to work on it: Pay attention to your employees’ energy levels and moods. Which tasks make them light up? Which tasks have them yawning at their desks? Simple observation should reveal plenty of actionable patterns. If you like the idea of clean classifications, then check out Deloitte’s research on the four main business personalities—pioneers, drivers, guardians, and integrators.
6. Proactively detecting and resolving problems.
Why you need it: Managers who can search and destroy team problems before they fester will find themselves overseeing productive teams.
How to work on it: Host weekly one-on-one meetings with each of your direct reports so you can hear about any problems and read clues to detect issues your employees might overlook or be reluctant to mention.
7. Resolving disputes.
Why you need it: It’s every manager’s worst nightmare: two or more employees who can’t get anything done because they’re in the midst of an ugly, emotionally draining fight.
How to work on it: Common sense alone will not help you out of this emotionally tumultuous issue. Resolving an employee conflict takes the same delicate touch as repairing an antique clock. Here are some how-tos adapted from Berkeley Human Resources:
- Acknowledge the problem instead of pretending that it doesn’t exist or that it might go away on its own.
- Let the feelings flow. Give everyone a chance to express how the argument makes them feel.
- Pinpoint the actual problem (outside of all the emotions) and the underlying need driving it.
- Propose a solution and then talk about it. Continue the discussion until everyone involved feels satisfied. Employees who leave an argument feeling that their needs haven’t been met will only get angrier.
8. Doling out recognition.
Why you need it: According to OfficeVibe, 90% of employees say their recognition program positively impacts engagement.
9. Serving before leading.
Why you need it: In the 1970s, Robert K. Greenleaf introduced the idea of servant leadership. In his essay, he wrote:
“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
The idea behind servant leadership is that managers who lead with a servant’s mindset make for happier, more engaged, and more productive teams.
How to work on it: OfficeVibe asked a workplace expert what managers can do to cultivate servant leadership. Some of his tips include:
- Be humble and give credit to the entire team.
- Be transparent and reveal your plans for the future.
- Offer employees coaching, training, and other forms of career development.
10. Unifying teams.
Why you need it: Teamwork makes the dream work. Teamwork has been tied to enhanced creativity and improved performance, plus employees like to be part of a team. One Premiere Global Services, Inc. (PGI) study shows that 88% of millennials prefer collaboration over competition in the workplace.
How to work on it: There are tons of strategies you can use to boost teamwork. Here are some of our favorite tips:
- Frequently host team-building activities.
- Pair new or developing employees with veteran buddies to make them feel at home.
- Hold safe-zone brainstorms so people can get to know each other’s communication and thinking styles.
- Use teamwork and collaboration tools, such as Slack, Trello, and
11. Being approachable.
Why you need it: Employees organically come to approachable managers with questions, problems, and ideas. These managers don’t need to develop reporting protocols and go on reconnaissance missions to find out what’s going on with their teams.
How to work on it: This Inc. post outlines six easy approachability tricks you can start doing immediately. Here’s our quick summary:
- Be the approacher. Leave your desk or office and greet your team. This friendly behavior broadcasts that you’re open to communicating with your team and encourages employees to return the favor.
- Practice active listening and be sure to provide specific responses to all issues and points your employees bring up.
- Share more about yourself, including your business-related and personal opinions, preferences, and interests.
- Figure out what your employees like to talk about and use those interests as your go-to topics.
- Monitor your nonverbal signals to avoid conversational shut-downs, including phone peeking, crossed arms, and bored expressions.
- Keep a go-to list of open-ended questions that encourage employees to share their feelings. ( uses “How do you see that idea working?” as an example.)
12. Representing the team.
Why you need it: Unfortunately, it’s not enough to lead a great team; you have to make sure you’re promoting and representing your team’s good work to upper management and the rest of the company.
How to work on it: Even if it’s against your nature, brag about the work your team is doing. Set up coffee dates with the big bosses and keep them apprised of everything that’s happening. When someone on your team has a really good idea, share it. As a manager, you should be constantly campaigning for your team.
13. Willingness to learn from the team.
Why you need it: Your employees can teach you a lot if you let them.
How to work on it: Listen first and make yourself heard later. Bosses who always push their own ideas and agendas are frustrating to work with, and their teams miss out on valuable ideas that might go unspoken; who wants to challenge the boss? Bosses who evaluate the team’s ideas and step in when necessary create an environment where the team is always learning from each other.
14. Strategically facing difficult conversations.
Why you need it: Difficult situations will come up, no matter how well your employees love and respect you. There’s no way to avoid awkward conversations, so the best plan is to have a plan for dealing with them when they happen.
How to work on it: As always, the Harvard Business Review has a great set of recommendations for dealing with this uncomfortable workplace conundrum. Here’s your cheat sheet:
- Consider the positives that may come out of the conversation (e.g. complete resolution and total happiness) instead of focusing on how things could go poorly and lead to universal hatred.
- Breathe deeply to calm yourself.
- Lay out a few key points to guide the difficult conversation, but avoid reading from a script. Be open to following the conversation where your colleagues want to take it.
- Truly listen and respect other perspectives and feelings. Try your best not to assume you’re right.
- Keep the conversation slow and steady.
- Keep the goal of a resolution in mind. No matter how difficult the conversation gets, remember that your objective is coming up with solutions to the problem at hand.
Are you a first-time manager? What new skills have you picked up? Are there any you are hoping to hone? Sound off in the comments.